I must have passed the armor a dozen times before I started to recognize it. The amount of time I spent back home with you admiring the golden accents clashing with the smooth iron casting, it made me embarrassed that it took this long to recognize it. I finally stopped to admire it one morning before I was to meet with Augustine. He was on my case about my arm, so I lingered even though it was a juvenile tactic.
That was when recognition struck me like Augustine’s rapier at practice. I knew this armor from my youth.
I would like to give myself slack for not noticing the armor earlier--I had been busy adjusting to Lyctorhood after all--but cutting myself slack was never something that got us to where we were. To where I was.
Coronabeth, my dear sister, I miss you more every day.
Outside the training room, in the inner circle of the Mithraeum, it hung golden and gilded with a helmet haloed in spines. It was bereft of a skeleton. The Ninth were such sticklers about their skeletons; to keep this one for themselves and only give the armor as a place of honor in the halls of the Mithraeum. Can you imagine the audacity?
It hung towards the front of the melange of honored heroes of the Cohort, a recent addition then. But dust covered the armor, dulling the golden sheen, because the story was at least one hundred fifty years old. Even in the holied halls of the Emperor Undying, dust gathered at the same rate as home. Only the Mithraeum lacked any servants to maintain everything, no one had the time to dust so many honored heroes.
I knew as soon as I recognized it that I had to ask Harry if she knew the story. She moved in such a funk that I’m sure she didn’t even notice the place of honor for the Ninth House warriors on display by the chapel.
It’s hard to catch Harry outside of our rooms (my room, rather, as she’s fond of finding me quite often), and I regularly forget about the armor when I’m nowhere near the training room.
Yet every time I see it, I think of Harry and I, and of the warrior nuns that donned that armor so many decades ago. Perhaps with a newfound partnership between Harry and myself, the only two Lyctors that came when called by the Emperor Undying, we can call the souls of these warrior nuns from the River and channel their devotion to each other.
I think I can relate to the warrior of the Third, Maeve was her name if I recall, who forsook the Third for her lady love in the way I forsook my sister for the chance of Lyctordom.
Coronabeth, I do this for you. I experiment with preservation in your name, because I want you by my side for all eternity. So long as you must also accept my other sister; a trio of warriors in the name of the Kindly Prince, the Necrolord Prime.
Third and Ninth, united again.
You were always so interested in the armory. While I labored with our theorems, you daydreamed about joining Naberius at the training ring, rapier sharp and true. When you could escape there, to join with the others, you returned with skin glowing from the sweat, breath shallow like you’d just barely scraped a victory, and eyes brighter than the lilacs that grew outside our room. You were brilliant at everything you tried, and that was why everyone loved you. That was why I followed you like a lost puppy, chasing that same devotion.
We were in the armory one day, you practicing forms and me practicing theorems, when Aunt Izzy came in uninvited.
“Forgive me, my ladies,” she said by way of greeting, barely bowing before us. I remember tolerating Aunt Izzy. Being the younger daughter of a younger daughter, she would never inherit much from Ida except a savvy marriage proposal. Yet she never seemed to show us, the crown princesses, the proper respect. “I did not mean to interrupt.”
While I tolerated her presence, you, Coronabeth, absolutely admired her. Like you, Aunt Izzy enjoyed swordplay. And while you were in the middle of secretly practicing your form, you challenged her then and there. She accepted, to my dismay, and I had to watch the two of you duke it out in the middle of all these weapons that could poke either of you in the back as you sparred.
You moved like a dance, but all Aunt Izzy wanted to do was correct your form. She had you once, but you managed to trick your way out of it with a move you no doubt learned from Babs. She laughed at the end of that play, your blade at her throat. Her laugh clanked like the clunky armor on display around us, and I silently wished her a poor marriage because of it.
“Why are you here, aunty?” you asked, a smile on your lips despite my obvious annoyance. You didn’t pay attention to me, and I didn’t fault you at that moment. Never take your eyes off the enemy.
Aunt Izzy quieted her mirth. “I came to admire the Armor of Twelve Wives.”
This intrigued you immediately. So Aunt Izzy led us to the armor, with its gilded halo and preserved skeletal occupant, and she told us about her ancestor Maeve and her wife, a Ninth adept named Morticia.
Maeve was odd when she lived at the Third. Quiet, spiritual, and maybe those words actually applied to her and maybe they didn’t. History applied them to her, so that is now her truth for the rest of time. Maeve studied the blade but was uninterested in being a cavalier. A standard Cohort warrior then, but she was more interested in self-fulfillment than her duty to the Third.
History did not have a consistent impression of her, we later learned. I tend to go with the interpretation of her skeleton on display, joyously grinning with a rude gesture at the ready. Callous and rebellious, even in death.
When she was fifteen, she went on a pilgrimage to the Nine Houses, seeking wisdom from each one, and the writers of the record books did not understand why.
There are letters about her travels, about what she learned from each house. First aid from the Sixth, poetry from the Seventh, how to trust your instinct from the Fourth, and so on. It was all unremarkable, until she got to the Ninth.
The Ninth did not teach her much in the ways of the warrior--the last great cavalier that came out of the Ninth was nearly nine hundred years ago at that point. Yet it remained the most significant, because it was at the House of the Ninth that Maeve found the single most important thing in her life: true love.
Her name was Morticia, and she was a bone adept. Maeve stayed at the Ninth longer than the other houses combined, and her letters frequently referenced Morticia--her beauty through the skull paint, the grace of her fingers as the prayed with their knucklebones, the skeletons she could raise and the way they moved, flawless in their execution. But Maeve had stayed too long on her pilgrimage, and the Third demanded that she fly their banner at the edges of the Empire in the name of the Prince Undying.
“Come with me,” she asked of her lover. “See the universe with me.”
And Morticia, who admired the way Maeve cut through her skeletons, who could be intimate with this house stranger and still be fulfilled, who allowed her empty face to be seen by this warrior of the Third. Maeve, who was brash and honest but glowed with an endearing fire that lit the dark rooms of the Ninth. Morticia fell just as hard for this Third House warrior as Maeve did for her.
Of course she said yes.
“How romantic,” you said in the armory as I rolled my eyes.
Aunt Izzy nodded. “I think so too.”
This started your big research spree into the lives of Lady Maeve and the Nun Morticia. They fought for the Third, so records of their rewards coming back to us were still in the archives. We spent almost a week in that dusty place, pouring over the financial records and, using them as a starting point, hunting down everything else in the archives about them.
There wasn’t much lighting in those sealed up rooms, and I hated every minute we spent there, but your eyes glowed with fascination as soon as you uncovered a secret everyone else missed. I can still remember the way your eyes glowed in the lantern light, dark as twilight and just as mysterious.
“They smuggled goods back to the Ninth,” you concluded in the archives. “They didn’t just fight for the Third. We can’t do anything about it now.”
I said nothing because I did not want to indulge.
You eventually unearthed Maeve’s letters, and read them before bed instead of the theorems I practiced. I loathed you for this luxury. But you were happy, and I did not want to risk that.
For almost ten years, Maeve and Morticia lived on the frontlines. They were nothing special, according to official records, but their story was certainly remarked upon at the time. A Ninth adept and her Third cavalier, fighting together for reasons unknown.
They were obviously in love. In the rare instances they were apart, they wrote letters to each other. Neither of them were great poets, but that didn’t much matter to them it seemed. In her letters back to her family on the Third, Maeve stressed her commitment to Morticia, as though any letters she received would accuse her of turning on her House. Yet she sent back so much of her spoils; did that not prove her love for the Third?
On the battlefield, they wore the armor of the Third with the skull paint of the Ninth, a frightening sight for people who fell for appearances. Maeve would cut the enemy down, and Morticia pulled the skeletons from the corpses, using her newfound constructs to support her cavalier.
“How charming,” I said once, perhaps the first time I commented on your new obsession.
“It’s so romantic,” you said. We were in our bed, you clutching a letter you must have read five times before and me with a drab novel that was, frankly, more interesting than I gave it credit for at the time. “Just think, you raising dead bodies to support me on the front lines.”
“You would never get anywhere near the frontlines,” I said. If anyone would see the continued legacy of the Third, it would be you. The frontlines would cut that short, and father would never allow it.
I refused to. So I went back to my novel, and you to your letters, and we still stayed up until much later than we were supposed to.
In the weeks since then, I started to realize that the books I chose were similar to the story of Morticia and Maeve: romances between houses, anything related to the Ninth and the shadow cultists there. I read the fictionalized versions of Maeve and Morticia and all its forms, and still I couldn’t help but be disappointed in them all.
Show us the romance, you cowards , I thought once as I finished another unsatisfying novel. I daren’t say it out loud. You were by my side, as you always were, nose stuck in another letter you snuck from the archives.
I felt for those old warriors. Their story was mismanaged. History did not take kindly to their romance. Someone had to set it right.
Finally, they retired.
They earned the name Warriors of the Twelve Wives because three plus nine is twelve. And they were married; had been since before they deployed, though they kept that just between them.
Their spoils to the Third granted them their own house and a servant or two for the rest of their days. Despite this, they returned to the Ninth. At least on the Ninth, they could be reclusive; live a simple life without getting hounded by Sixth historians or poets from the Seventh. They could hermit away for the rest of their days, with nothing but themselves to hold. And that was exactly what they did. You found no records of children, but you did not have access to the Ninth’s birth records to confirm this.
Upon their death, the Ninth returned the body and armor of Maeve back to the Third (though they attempted to negotiate for the skeleton). There, she was put on display, separated from her lover and wife. She might have been upset by that. I know I would be. Perhaps her obscene gesture was directed at whatever asshole returned her to the place she left so long ago.
The bones of Morticia remained at the Ninth, doing whatever the Ninth does with its skeletons. Her armor, meanwhile, was sent to the Emperor Undying. Somehow he learned of their story and wanted to honor the union of two houses. So the Ninth sent the armor his way, hiding the fact that it was one of the less valuable things Morticia won for them.
“They say the armor with the Emperor Undying is a replica of this one,” Aunty Izzy said in the armory one day. You had begged her to tell you the story again, the next time she visited. And so she did. I was there, of course, rolling my eyes the entire time. Aunt Izzy didn’t know the half of it, and I wasn’t about to correct her. You, meanwhile, who knew exactly the parts Aunt Izzy skipped, were as transfixed as the day she first told the story.
“I want to see it for myself,” you said in a voice of determination I knew to worry about.
“Only the dead travel to the Mithraeum,” Aunty Izzy said. She looked at you thoughtfully, a smirk cutting an ugly line across her face. “I hope you break the universe, Princess Coronabeth. And I hope the Emperor Undying sees in you what I and the rest of the Third see.”
I was never given that accolade. If it came from Aunty Izzy, I wasn’t sure I wanted it.
You are not the one seeing the armor at the Mithraeum, my darling. It is just me, walking out of the training room after another failed attempt to get my dead arm to work. Ahead I see Harry, shoulders slumped with that sword, back to me; probably just finished one of her lovely koffeeklatches with the Necrolord Prime himself.
“Harry,” I called. She stops to look at me, brow creased with frustration or annoyance. I pointed to the Armor of Twelve Wives. “Do you know the story of this armor?”
She looked at it, and I saw in the pits of her eyes that she didn’t think that hard.
“No,” she said. Then she walked away.